The History of The German Army Trainer
The History of The German Army Trainer
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date October 23, 2018
No silhouette is more emblematic of menswear’s gradual acceptance of the sneaker than the German Army Trainer, a model which has long been a staple in the rotations of those in the know. It is a shoe with history and one which sparks contentious debate about both its origins and the purest reincarnation of a decades-old classic. The GAT, as it is colloquially known, may be best known in fashion circles as one of Maison Margiela’s best-known replica designs—the Margiela version is literally called the "Replica"—but the silhouette’s roots extend back to the 1970s, long before the Belgian designer was parading sneakers down runways.
Before diving into the shoe’s murky history, it’s important to establish what exactly makes a German Army Trainer. Traditionally GATs feature white leather uppers and gum rubber soles, with grey or off-white suede detailing on the toe box and the side panel featuring a small leather overlay.
As the shoe’s name implies, the German Army Trainer’s roots lie with the German Army, though the exact origins are a little more convoluted. In the late 1970s, the West German Army was seeking new training shoes for its soldiers and, given the sheer size of the standing force, it was a lucrative contract to be had. As a result, two of Germany’s biggest sportswear and sneaker manufacturers set their sights on outfitting the Bundeswehr: adidas and Puma.
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adidas and Puma were famously founded by two feuding brothers, Adolf and Rudolf Dassler; in 1948, the former founded adidas (short for Adi Dassler) while the latter launched Ruda (short for Rudolf Dassler) which would later come to be known as Puma. Before going their separate ways, Adolf and Rudolf ran Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik—or, in English, the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory—out of their hometown of Herzogenaurach, Germany. Perhaps the most memorable moment from this era is that the Dasslers provided Jesse Owens with his spikes during his quadruple conquest of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, an event which bred more success for the brothers in the track world. But, during World War II, the brothers had developed important differences that were hindering their ability to run a single, united company and, in 1948, they decided to go their separate ways.
Fast-forward a few decades and the domestic competition between adidas and Puma was at a fever pitch once the West German Army announced it was looking for shoe fit for its force; it was a group that stood at some half million men and women. According to some excellent digging by Luke Leitch, official records from the Bundeswehr History Museum, the initial prototypes of what would eventually become the GAT were proposed by Puma. Strangely, Puma has no records of ever producing a training sneaker for the Bundeswehr and has even gone on record (to the Wall Street Journal no less) to state that the company was never involved in producing the shoe for the West German military.
adidas, on the other hand, has openly acknowledged producing what would come to be known as Bundeswehr Sportschuche in the 1980s and 1990s. This, despite the fact that the Bundeswehr History Museum in Dresden has no records of the Three Stripes having been the purveyor of the forces’ training footwear.
Despite the seeming incongruities in the GAT’s origin story—or stories, rather—there is a plausible explanation that speaks to both the complex rivalry between adidas and Puma and the appeal of the GAT’s understated design. The original German Army Trainer—the ones produced in the '80s still floating around vintage stores across Germany—bore a small, but important, resemblance to the track spikes donned by Jesse Owens in 1936. Sure, the spikes were slimmer and equipped with… well, spikes, but the detailing on Owens’ shoes and that of the traditional German Army Trainer are similar. This is seen the presence of two strips—not three stripes—on the side panel. Thus, it’s possible that Rudolf and Adolf set out to fulfill the German Federal Army’s call with similar blueprints and inspiration.
As for the absence of adidas’ role within the Dresden archives, it may owe to the fact that the BW Sport—which adidas claims was manufactured for the Bundeswehr in the '80s and '90s—was just that: A shoe manufactured for the purpose of military use and not bought by the military at a later date. As such, the adidas-manufactured trainers intentionally bore none of the company’s branding and it’s easy to imagine the company’s involvement being overlooked after the fact. While it may make the brand-based narrative a little confusing, that lack of branding and supremely minimal aesthetic is what helped contribute to the popularity of the GAT in the late-'90s and throughout the '00s.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, some 500,000 soldiers had been issued Bundeswehr Sportschuche. When the Cold War came to an end, the Bundeswehr was subsequently, and rather dramatically, downsized. As a result, hundreds of thousands of pairs of GATs were in the possession of suddenly ordinary civilians who no longer needed them for service use. And as recently discharged soldiers are wont to do in a recently unified country undergoing economic redevelopment in uncertain times, many of them sold their standard issue gear—including the BW Sport trainers—to army surplus stores. German military garb tends to be fetishized among army surplus fans; the force’s camouflage considered to be among the most popular in the world, which helped boost the popularity of the BW Sport. More importantly though, it was a well-designed and simple sneaker that was supremely versatile. A crisp white leather upper and contrasting gum rubber sole had the hallmarks of a wardrobe staple, while also proving to be durable—evidenced by the fact that standard issue pairs are still wearable and being sold on the secondary market.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that Belgian designer Martin Margiela happened upon a pair at some point in the '90s—if we’re to trust the brief description of events included on the product’s label, Margiela discovered the silhouette in Austria, not Germany, which is a testament to the GAT's cross-border mobility after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Margiela was clearly smitten with the authentic version and purchased dozens of pairs of BW Sport, which ended up on models at his eponymous label’s Spring/Summer 1999 Artisanal presentation.
The method was to “produce” the earliest Maison Margiela German Army Trainers, with the label buying up vintage BW Sport sneakers, cleaning them, changing the laces and embossing the Maison’s iconic numeric branding on the tongue of the shoes; in some cases the pairs were repainted as well, which was a common thread in Margiela’s work. Arguably, the most famous pairs from this era are those from 2001-2002, when the Maison Margiela team painted over the gum soles on the adidas-produced BW Sport and added handwritten notes on the uppers. Not only did this make each pair unique, but it created pieces that had come into direct contact with the notoriously reclusive and secretive Margiela design team. It’s interesting to note that this concept has been re-appropriated in recent years by the likes of Pharrell Williams (on adidas sneakers, no less!) and Virgil Abloh.
Alas, Maison Margiela could only get away with flipping surplus BW Sport trainers at an astronomical markup for so long before having to move on from the vintage sneakers. At some point in the early to mid-’00s, Maison Margiela started producing its own BW Sport replica sneakers. They would be dubbed the “Replica” and have since become the menswear equivalent of Margiela’s ubiquitous Tabi Boot—a brand staple from season to season that serves as a blank canvas of sorts for the design team and that seasonal design brief. Unlike the Tabi, though, the Replica is almost laughably simple in its purest form, with white leather on the upper, off-white suede accents, and, of course, the gum sole. Still, every season is filled with new Replicas, each offering a glimpse at the season’s overarching story, whether that be by being splattered with paint, kitted out with mock-galoshes, or offered in vibrant hues of a luxurious leather.
The Maison Margiela Replica is probably the best known iteration of the German Army Trainer, owing to its broad appeal as an elegant designer sneaker that is simple enough to be understood outside of the fashion cognoscenti. While the GAT is not a Margiela creation, its popularity in recent years may be; the label's successes may have pushed others to try their hands at reinventing the Bundeswehr-issued trainer.
Around the same time that the Replica was unveiled as a Margiela-produced shoe, circa 2005, Dior Homme unveiled the B01, its own high-end take on the German Army Trainer. The Hedi Slimane-designed sneakers would have been inspired, not by the Margiela Replica, but by the BW Sport—whether in its pure form, or the upcycled versions proposed by Maison Margiela around the turn of the millennium. The main difference between the B01 and the Replica was the presence of a contrasting black stripe across the side panel (a reference, perhaps, to adidas’ “Three Stripes”) and a more striking resemblance to the adidas Samba thanks to the use of grey, rather than off-white, suede on the toe box.
The B01 didn’t have the same staying power within Dior Homme’s collections as the Replica did within Maison Margiela’s and the silhouette was considered an archival piece by the mid-2010s. But, late last year Dior Homme—then helmed by Kris Van Assche—announced that the B01 would be making a return for the label’s Spring-Summer 2018 collection.
Rather than signal a deep-dive into the Dior archives, it was a move that largely coincided with other brands offering up their own takes on the German Army Trainer. The most notable among them has been adidas, the supposed originator of the now-iconic sneaker, which offered up various takes on the silhouette throughout 2017: the BW Trainer, a slim contemporary model; the BW Army, an authentic redux of the classic; and the BW Avenue, a slightly more robust model that eschewed the gum sole in favor of a cup sole.
Of course, one of the biggest differences between the Margiela and Dior GATs and the adidas iterations is the price point. Really, there does seem to be some sort of high-end fetishism of the German Army Trainer. Artisanal Japanese leather goods purveyor Hender Scheme has introduced a GAT silhouette, the Manual Industrial Products 05, that checks in a touch under $1000. Moncler has the Biarritz, which, like the B01, stands as a German Army Trainer-Samba hybrid.
Smaller brands, like Epaulet and Svensson (who were firmly entrenched within the “#menswear” trend that so adored the Maison Margiela Replica in the early-2010s) have put forth their own versions of the GAT. The two cases illustrate divergent approaches to offering contemporary takes on historical footwear. Epaulet, a New York-based boutique and label, opted for an almost one-to-one reissue of the prototypical GAT, while Svensson’s GAT more closely resembled the BW Avenue, creating something that looked familiar, without immediately sticking out as a German Army Trainer.
Perhaps the most bizarre addition to the German Army Trainer’s iconography has come from Puma, a brand that claimed it had absolutely nothing to do with the creation of a training shoe for the [Bundeswehr](https://www.grailed.com/designers/bundeswehr. But, in 2013, the brand released a collaboration with Japanese designer Junya Watanabe: A sneaker bearing all of the hallmarks of a German Army Trainer—from the gum sole and toe box detailing—in addition to Puma’s iconic formstrip.
Perhaps it meant nothing. But, Watanabe is notoriously rigorous in his research and often unearths the most authentic references and partners for his collections. He works with Levi’s for denim, Carhartt for workwear, The North Face for outerwear, Lacoste for polos and Converse for vulcanized sneakers. So, perhaps, by working with Puma for a German Army Trainer, Watanabe and Puma were dropping a subtle hint that it was Rudolf’s company—rather than Adolf’s—that was responsible for birthing the originator.
There are probably only a few people in the world who can enlighten us as to the true origins of the German Army Trainer. But there are many people who can speak to the shoe’s ubiquity within menswear and its versatility. We may never know if Puma or adidas gave us the first German Army Trainer. What we do know is that the shoe took on an added importance that has carried it from army surplus stores in Berlin to the likes of Barney’s and Totokaelo over three decades. In a sense that is the greatness of the German Army Trainer—its simplicity allows it to be both a blank canvas and a foundational sneaker for designer brands and mass-market ones alike.